A Beginner’s Guide to AWS IAM for 2024

Headshot of CareerFoundry contributor Alex Williams.

Odds are your business already takes advantage of Amazon Web Services, including programs or features like AWS S3

However, AWS IAM is another important tool for Web Services users, and it’s something you must understand if you want to keep your critical company files safe and leverage AWS to its maximum effectiveness.

Not sure where to start? Skip the basic tutorials and read this beginner’s guide to learn everything you need to start using AWS IAM. 

Click on the table of contents below to navigate to each section.

  1. What is AWS IAM?
  2. AWS IAM features
  3. Advantages of AWS IAM
  4. How to learn more about AWS IAM

Are you ready to get into it? Then let’s get started!

1. What is AWS IAM?

Amazon Web Services offers a variety of programs and tools to both business owners and individuals. AWS IAM, or “Identity Access Management,” is one of those programs. 

AWS IAM gives you the tools to manage users for your AWS console or account. Cloud engineers can also manage the levels of access the different users have on your AWS console, plus determine the permissions, roles, and other aspects of that access.

For example, say that you have an AWS account for storing and backing up your files in the cloud, but you don’t want every employee to have access to critical business files only meant to be viewed by executives. In this case, you can use AWS IAM to limit the permissions of front-line employees while maintaining maximum access levels and permissions for executives. 

More broadly, IAM allows organizations to control and centrally manage their users in addition to security credentials like access keys and permissions. 

If your organization doesn’t have IAM, you have to create multiple user accounts for the same AWS resources and pay for billing and subscriptions to Amazon Web Services.

2. AWS IAM features

AWS IAM includes many essential features and functions that can bolster or streamline your business operations. Here are just some of the things you can do with IAM:

  • Centralized, manageable control over a business AWS account. Account owners can control the creation, cancellation, or rotation of user security credentials and control access levels for different users in their AWS system.
  • Shared access to a single AWS account for resource pooling or collaboration.
  • Granular permission settings to set specific permissions or security levels for different users.
  • Identity federation, which allows you to use Facebook, LinkedIn, Active Directory, and other platforms in conjunction with IAM. Essentially, you can log into your IAM console using the same username and password you use to log into your business Facebook page.
  • Multi-factor authentication for added security.
  • Key networking controls allow users to access AWS resources within a corporate network.
  • Organizational group permission allows managers to restrict users from accessing certain resources stored on AWS based on job duties or responsibilities.
  • Temporary access to files or resources for specific users or devices when needed.
  • AWS services integrations. Naturally, IAM is integrated with the other aspects of Amazon Web Services.
  • Free to use.
  • PCI DSS compliance. The payment card industry data security standard compliance framework is important for businesses that take credit card information from their customers.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to make sure your cloud is as secure as possible, check out our guide to the most common AWS security mistakes you can make.

AWS IAM roles

In AWS IAM, a “role” is any set of permissions that define the actions a user is allowed or not allowed to take by another entity in the same console. 

Roles can be accessed by any entity, like the AWS service or an individual. Role permissions can be thought of as temporary credentials.

Say that you want a worker’s mobile phone to be able to use AWS resources. However, you don’t want that mobile device to save a permissions key or credential. In that case, you can assign a role to that mobile device, so it only has access to the resources you designate, and only temporarily at that.

You can similarly offer third-party access roles to consultants, auditors, and other professionals who temporarily need to view files in your AWS environment.

AWS IAM identities

In AWS IAM, identities include users and groups. 

IAM users are identities that contain an associated credential and relevant permissions. These can include both users (i.e., an employee or executive) or an application that uses AWS, such as another program. 

Every IAM user is associated with a single AWS account. This way, you can assign permissions to each user and maintain maximum control over file security.

Groups are collections of IAM users. You can specify permissions for several users simultaneously with IAM groups so that any permissions applied to the group are automatically applied to individual users within the group. 

This is a good way to set permissions for AWS resources for entire departments or employees with the same rank in your organization.

AWS IAM policy

AWS IAM further allows you to set policies that offer various permission and control access levels to AWS resources. 

All policies set by account managers are stored in Amazon Web Services. Permissions specify who has access to specific resources and what actions those users can perform.

Let’s say that you need one of your IAM users to access an Amazon S3 bucket. In that case, you could set a policy containing information like:

  • Who has access to the bucket
  • What the user can do to the bucket
  • What AWS resources they can access
  • When they can access the bucket, etc.

AWS IAM offers two types of policies:

  • Managed policies are the default policies attached to several entities in the same AWS account.
  • Inline policies are policies embedded directly into a single entity, like a group, user, or role.

AWS IAM authenticator

As stated, AWS IAM allows multi-factor authentication. This requires users to provide a username and password in addition to a one-time password from their phone. 

The one-time password is a randomly generated number and acts as another layer of security to prevent unauthorized access.

A cloud engineer discusses AWS IAM with their colleague at an office desk.

3. Advantages of AWS IAM

Amazon Web Services IAM offers several advantages to businesses and individuals that use it, including:

  • Increased control over their sensitive files and information
  • The ability to control who has access to files or data
  • The ability to monitor file access and usage, etc.

More importantly, IAM is advantageous for business executives who need to assign and control credentials and permissions for many employees simultaneously. 

It’s much easier to use IAM than to assign individual permissions and trust that each employee will know which files they have access to without guidance.

4. How to learn more about AWS IAM

As you can see, AWS IAM is a critically important tool that all businesses can benefit from. But this beginner’s guide has only scratched the surface of what it has to offer.

Be sure to check out Amazon’s tutorial that you can try out and learn how to execute common end-to-end procedures in AWS IAM. 

Furthermore, if you want to learn more about AWS IAM and cloud computing itself, then CareerFoundry’s Cloud Computing Specialization is a great option. Our extensive set of guides and educational resources could be just what you need to better understand this tool and all of its important elements.

If you’d like to learn more about the world of cloud computing and web development in general, check out these articles:

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